local web of life’
CHRISTINA Stead’s former family home in the Sydney suburb of Watsons Bay was recently bought by wellheeled Socceroo Mark Schwarzer, who lives mainly in Britain. He has caused a fuss by seeking to demolish portions of the house and garden immortalised by the Australian author to make way for a three-car garage and a swimming pool. Since there is no preservation order on the property and scant public recognition of its cultural significance, he may well get his way.
I was reminded of this sorry tale while reading Sally Heath’s inaugural editorial as the editor of Meanjin. Heath is Melbourne University Publishing’s in-house replacement for Sophie Cunningham, who left last year following disagreements with the Meanjin board over the journal’s direction. Heath is by all accounts a capable editor and an informed, thoughtful auditor of Australian letters, yet when she writes that ‘‘ Meanjin cannot be a publicly funded exercise aimed at bringing private pleasure to a fortunate few’’, I can almost hear the excavator’s engine kick over.
Curiously, Heath’s first issue includes just the sort of writers whose rhetorical subtlety and intellectual independence argue against the bald philistinism implied by her opening remarks. It as though her editorial instincts rebelled against some dreary party line, summoning to the fore the kind of writing that Meanjin has, over six decades, made its own: savoir-vivre, but from a local perspective; social engagement without the didactic urge.
Maria Tumarkin’s essay asylum-seekers, for example, provides deliciously counterintuitive start. Stories without borders uses the successes of Vietnamese-Australian comedian Anh Do and author Nam Le to ask whether our national reluctance to support migrants to these shores with our tax dollars might represent a ‘‘ striking failure of the moral imagination’’. She goes on to deplore ‘‘ an eerily sanitised view of immigration as a calculated decision driven predominantly by self-interest, and self-interest of the economic kind’’.
Mainstream attitudes towards immigration are a mirror, in other words, in which we see our mean-spiritedness and cynicism reflected in all its ugliness. You may disagree with her critique but Tumarkin is surely correct to argue that sharing the true stories of new migrants and their children is the best proof we have of the difficulty and sincerity of their undertaking. Stories like those of Le have enriched our culture in large yet finally unquantifiable ways.
Of course, despite Le’s success, in the free market of narratives there are rarely many takers for stories like those described by Tumarkin or Michael Giacometti (who writes here of the long-haul difficulties and complex cultural transactions behind publication of books by or about indigenous Australians) and Jane Sullivan (who meditates on multicultural literature in a monolingual society and the problems of translation). The irony is that only in the pages of journals such as Meanjin are public monies used to a public good in spite of wider public uninterest.
More curious still is Heath’s inclusion of discussions on the importance of place. Mran-Maree Laing’s Feeling the Heat ostensibly relates the late-night party the author held during the hottest night on record in Sydney, earlier this year. But it soon devolves into a personal essay on the ways in which our built environment and social norms alienate us from our climatic reality. ‘‘ We are going to have to learn to live in the world again,’’ she writes, and suffer the heat rather than turn the airconditioner up and so help ‘‘ corral ourselves into an unbearable future’’.
This same point is made again later in the volume by Tim Flannery, in a transcript of a Perth Writers Festival conversation with American author Annie Proulx on the relationship between art and science. He speaks of his modest home on the Hawkesbury River outside Sydney, where he spends most of the year outside: . . . you feel the weather on your skin, and the birds and animals — you watch the rhythms of birds and animals come and go and it does something profound to you. It roots you in a particular environment in a way that’s very hard to articulate.
This ‘‘ local web of life’’ (as Proulx calls it) is one that Meanjin itself is potentially withdrawing from. Instead of an office, the magazine operates from a hot desk within MUP. Beyond its quarterly appearance in printed form, Heath writes airily of ‘‘ text on the internet, video or live events’’. But a Meanjin uploaded is not necessarily a Meanjin improved. Heath has done a wonderful job in a compressed time-period in this edition: she deserves the benefit of the doubt.
But if the journal is to make the transition online with its cultural and literary credentials intact, it will need some assistance. Watch closely: if you see an announcement of a considerable boost to the journal’s coffers to pay for the multimedia filmmakers and web monkeys necessary to an expanded undertaking, you’ll know Meanjin’s backers are sincere. If you don’t, well, you can be sure that the ideology of the bottom line has resulted in the destruction of one more beautiful and apparently useless garden. Geordie Williamson is The Australian’s chief literary critic.